Companies bet on AI to track social distancing, limit liability

People ride a subway with social distancing signs on the floor. Reuters Women practicing social distancing in a subway train in Milan. (AP)
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Updated 28 April 2020

Companies bet on AI to track social distancing, limit liability

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA: Stores and workplaces eager to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus are equipping existing security cameras with artificial intelligence software that can track compliance with health guidelines including social distancing and mask-wearing.

Several companies said the software will be crucial to staying open as concerns about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, persist around the world. It will allow them to show not only workers and customers, but also insurers and regulators, that they are monitoring and enforcing safe practices.

“The last thing we want is for the governor to shut all our projects down because no one is behaving,” said Jen Suerth, vice president at Chicago-based Pepper Construction, which introduced software from SmartVid.io this month to detect workers grouping at an Oracle Corp. project in Deerfield, Illinois.

Samarth Diamond plans to deploy AI from Glimpse Analytics as soon as its polishing factory reopens in Gujarat, India, while two Michigan shopping centers owned by RPT Realty will have distancing tracking from RE Insight in two weeks.

Buyers expect the technology will work because they already have used similar tools to profile shoppers entering stores and find helmet scofflaws on construction sites.

But some technology consultants that advise retailers and office landlords have cautioned clients against introducing new technology at a chaotic time and investing in tools that may be needed only for a period of months. Privacy activists concerned about increasingly detailed tracking of people also are urging businesses to limit use of the AI to the pandemic.

“The question becomes whether the tech remains after the public health problem goes away, and that is the real privacy fear,” said Al Gidari, a privacy expert at Stanford Law School. “Video in the store today to ensure social distancing remains to identify shoplifters tomorrow.”

Reuters spoke with 16 video analytics companies, many of them startups with a few million dollars in annual revenue, that have added offerings because of the coronavirus. Their systems can be set to produce daily reports, which site managers can use to correct recurring problems and document compliance.

Most work on a branch of AI technology known as computer or machine vision in which algorithms are trained on image libraries to identify objects with confidence of 80 percent or higher.

Several customers said the technology, which can cost $1,000 or more annually to analyze data from a handful of off-the-shelf video cameras, is cheaper than dedicating staff to standing guard. It also can be safer, as some guards enforcing distancing have clashed with people protesting safety measures, they said.

Pepper Construction’s Suerth said its SmartVid system has not flagged crowding issues yet because staffing has been limited. But Suerth said that as more crews arrive, the company will look at trends to issue reminders at “toolbox talks.”

“It’s another set of eyes on the site,” Suerth said, adding that software is less prone to mistakes than people and the “accuracy we’re seeing is really high.”

Samarth Diamond manager Parth Patel said he could adjust procedures when the software identifies spots where his 4,000 workers are clumping together in busy areas. People tagged as not having masks quickly would be offered one by a team reviewing camera feeds, Patel said.

“It will surely be helpful for the safety of employees and their comfort level, and it will be helpful to show it to authorities that we are adhering” to regulations, Patel said.

Patel said he has confidence in the algorithms after his family successfully used computer vision last year at supermarkets it owns to count female shoppers and decide where to stock a new line of dresses.


UK to purge Huawei from 5G by 2027, angering China and pleasing Trump

Updated 14 July 2020

UK to purge Huawei from 5G by 2027, angering China and pleasing Trump

  • UK to purge Huawei from 5G by 2027
  • No new 5G components to be bought from end of 2020

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered Huawei equipment to be purged completely from Britain’s 5G network by 2027, risking the ire of China by signalling that the world’s biggest telecoms equipment maker is no longer welcome in the West.
The seven-year lag will please British telecoms operators such as BT, Vodafone and Three, which had feared they would be forced to spend billions of pounds to rip out Huawei equipment much faster. But it will delay the roll out of 5G.
The United States had long pushed Johnson to reverse a decision he made in January to grant Huawei a limited role in 5G. London has also been dismayed by a crackdown in Hong Kong and the perception China did not tell the whole truth over the coronavirus.
Britain’s National Security Council (NSC), chaired by Johnson, decided on Tuesday to ban the purchase 5G components from the end of this year and to order the removal of all existing Huawei gear from the 5G network by 2027.
The cyber arm of Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping agency, the National Cyber Security Center, told ministers it could no longer guarantee the stable supply of Huawei gear after the United States imposed new sanctions on chip technology.
Telecoms companies will also be told to stop using Huawei in fixed-line fiber broadband within the next two years.
“This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the UK telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy, both now and indeed in the long run,” Britain’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden told parliament.
“By the time of the next election, we will have implemented in law, an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks.”
In what some have compared to the Cold War antagonism with the Soviet Union, the United States is worried that 5G dominance is a milestone toward Chinese technological supremacy that could define the geopolitics of the 21st century.
With faster data and increased capacity, 5G will become the nervous system of the future economy — carrying data on everything from global financial flows to critical infrastructure such as energy, defense and transport.
After Australia first recognized the destructive power of 5G if hijacked by a hostile state, the West has become steadily more worried about Huawei.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien is meeting representatives of France, the UK, Germany and Italy in Paris this week to discuss security, including 5G.
The West is trying to create a group of rivals to Huawei to build 5G networks. Other large-scale telecoms equipment suppliers are Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia .

End of ‘Golden Era’?
Hanging up on Huawei, founded by a former People’s Liberation Army engineer, marks the end of what former Prime Minister David Cameron cast as a “golden era” in ties, promoting Britain as Europe’s top destination for Chinese capital. Cameron toasted the relationship over a beer with President Xi Jinping in an English pub, which was later bought by a Chinese firm.
Trump, though, has repeatedly asked London to ban Huawei which Washington calls an agent of the Chinese Communist state — an argument that has support in Johnson’s Conservative Party.
Huawei denies it spies for China and has said the United States wants to frustrate its growth because no US company could offer the same range of technology at a competitive price.
China says banning one of its flagship global technology companies would have far-reaching ramifications.
In January, Johnson defied Trump by allowing what he called high-risk companies’ involvement in 5G, capped at 35%.